Not For Me
I bought Beyoncé’s Lemonade album eight days ago. That I have listened to it a mere seven times through is only a reflection of the amount of time I have to listen to music, and not at all of my feelings about the music. Because this album is a masterpiece, and I love it. I love how musically adventurous it is. I love the naked emotion, both the roar in “Don’t Hurt Yourself” and the sigh in “Pray You Catch Me.” I love the confidence and the vulnerability, both. I love how it makes me feel. As much as I understand about Lemonade, though, I know too that there are parts I do not understand, that I may never fully understand. I love it, but it wasn’t made for me.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: art that isn’t for me. I thought about it when Prince died, of course, because on some level music so brilliant and so explicitly about freedom and limitlessness is for everyone. But, of course, there are parts of Prince’s music that I can’t access, which the life I’ve lived simply hasn’t given me the experiences to be able to know.
Is there a way to talk about this that isn’t appropriative? That isn’t trying to make it about me? Maybe not. Maybe I wouldn’t be thinking about this so much if I didn’t feel a sense of entitlement. The question that stays in my mind isn’t so much what I’m allowed to love or what I can say I relate to. Rather, I wonder about participation, and about how my presence affects the rest of the audience.
Years ago I saw a feature on Lenscratch of photographs from a young artist named Natalie Krick; I was drawn in by the wit and intellect apparent in the images. She had something to say about femininity, about feminism, about youth and age, about parents and children, about our image-saturated culture. Much later I discovered she was on Instagram, and I loved the way that even her casual studio and process snaps had both a boldness and a sense of play, and an assuredness that I have certainly never felt about either my art or my body. But it’s clear, too, that that play is with and for the young women who are her peers and friends, and not at all for some dude out in the suburbs who has three kids and is pushing forty. I love her work and I think it deserves to be celebrated, but I wonder sometimes whether I am intruding.
Back in March, Jenny Zhang—whose poetry and essays I adore—tweeted a link to an interview between her and fellow writer Charlotte Shane, titled “There’s no spectrum of nuance for why people might expose themselves.” I had just recently read Zhang’s essay “On Blonde Girls in Cheongsams” and had been thinking a lot about how erased I have felt at times in my life, how I have not felt entitled to access the Asian culture into which I was supposedly born. And I loved her for putting that feeling into words and then again for putting those words into the world. I felt seen. At the same time, I knew that much of what she wrote in that essay was something I’d only really understand if I’d grown up as a girl. In the interview with Charlotte Shane, she asked
I’d be interested to know what you think the gender breakdown of your readership is, and then within the men who read your work, do you ever feel like they are judgy or creepy or perhaps looking for evidence of a womanís brokenness or fucked-ness, and what percentage are just open, curious, voracious for your stories and your ideas?
It’s a thing I’ve wondered, too, because Zhang’s writing is so often about her sexuality, her body, and it must attract all manner of creepers. And, indeed, both she and Shane talked about that. I can imagine how frustrating, how infuriating it must be to get that kind of reaction from men who you were not talking to, who you were never thinking about when you were writing your own truths, but who still feel allowed to do whatever they want with your writing. I can imagine it, but I can’t really know how it feels because it’s not something that has happened to me.
And this is the crux of it: this work represents a phenomenon which I have never and probably will never experience, but which millions of women live every day. It is speaking to them, not to me. And if I go into this space, no matter how much I love the work, nor what my intention may be, it is true that my presence may make one of these women feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. Here some dude will pound the table and shout “Not All Men!” but this is entirely missing the point. (Also, he is an asshole.) The point is that the work is by a woman, speaking to other women, and if my being there makes one of these women—who may connect more deeply with the work than I ever will—unable to enjoy and connect with the art or the artist, then that is me interfering with the purpose of the art.
I know that if art is put out into the world for the public to view, it is not wrong for me to view it. I know that if I see some part of myself reflected in someone else’s art, I can experience that connection and feel good about it. But what the boundaries of participation and engagement with a piece or with the artist are—or should be—I don’t know. I’m sure it varies from piece to piece and artist to artist, from situation to situation. I want to be respectful. I want not to cause harm. I don’t know if there’s an answer and I know there isn’t a rulebook, but I hope that there could be a conversation.
Rauschenberg, de Kooning, and the Arrogance of Art-Making
I’ve been contemplating a new piece recently. A new way of working, really, something that breaks from what I currently do as a photographer or writer. Big changes are always scary, and this is certainly true for changes to one’s artistic process. The future is an uncharted territory, and it’s always unclear what you will find if you head down a new path. Perhaps it will be a new vista, perhaps ruin.
Speaking of “ruin” in the context of an art project smacks of hyperbole, of course—it may feel like disaster is lurking but, realistically, artistic failure means only the loss of time and, perhaps, money. Still, I can’t help thinking about the ways that the creation of art can affect one’s life, a sort of quantum effect where the observation intrudes upon the observed. And this brings to mind Robert Rauschenberg.
One of Rauschenberg’s most famous and controversial pieces is “Erased de Kooning Drawing.” De Kooning, of course, was one of the most celebrated Abstract Expressionists, and Rauschenberg was a particular fan of his. As the story goes, Rauschenberg was interested in finding ways to make art that didn’t involve traditional mark-making and had hit upon the idea of erasure as a technique. But he was unsatisfied with erasing his own works. In this interview on Artforum, he says:
I was trying to figure out a way to bring drawing into the all-whites. I kept making drawings myself and erasing them, and that just looked like an erased Rauschenberg. It was nothing. So I figured out that it had to begin as art. So I thought “It’s got to be a de Kooning.”
“Erased de Kooning Drawing” has gone on to become a significant work in itself, and people have praised it for how it pushes the boundary of the medium, decried it for removing what would have been an important de Kooning piece from the world. I’ve always seen the art of it as being in the act of its creation, which is to say: the act of destroying the original de Kooning piece. The object that’s left, which hangs today at SFMOMA, is really a pointer to something more like a performance. In erasing de Kooning’s drawing, Rauschenberg was destroying something that he valued in order to make something else.
The thing that marvels me most right now is the same apprehension I’m having with my own work: the unknown future. Some art—and Rauschenberg’s is a prime example—changes the world irrecoverably just in the act of creating it. And though “Erased de Kooning Drawing” ended up being a success, there’s no way that Rauschenberg could have known that before he started. Even leaving aside whatever the financial outcome of the piece may have been, or whether it was eventually accepted into the canon of “great art,” it would have been possible for Rauschenberg to know before he started scraping away at the paper that he would be satisfied with the result when he finished. And if he hadn’t produced something that at least he felt was worthwhile, then the act of destruction would have been meaningless. It would, in fact, have taken something valuable out of the world and given nothing back.
To be able to take that leap, to be assured enough of the validity of your ideas to be able to do something like that: is that confidence? Arrogance? How does a person come by it? Was it something cultivated, something nurtured, or is it something you have to be born with? Is this something I could find for myself? And should I? Am I prepared to deal with the consequences if I should fail?
Of course, I find myself rushing to point out that I have no thoughts to destroy something like a de Kooning—what I stand to lose is merely personal. Though, at that, if the damage would be limited to my own emotional state, this doesn’t make it so terribly less daunting to me.
Too, I know that I have taken risks before. So much of my work is about family, about my relationship to the people in my life, and by taking private moments and making them public, I am inevitably and irrevocably altering the moment itself, our memories of the moment, and my relationship with the people in the images. I have always known this, and yet the necessity of showing my story has trumped my responsibility to the other people who populate that story.
I know I’m being cagey here. I’m not ready to go public with this new idea yet. Maybe something will come of it, or maybe I will decide that it’s not worth the risk. I may even decide against it for other reasons—I never have difficulty coming up with reasons why I shouldn’t do something. Still, I can’t help thinking about Rauschenberg. Is the making of art inherently arrogant and narcissistic? Or is this question merely my own anxiety rearing its head again?
I wish I had some answers for you. I’ll be thinking about it. Good luck, everybody. I hope the coming week is fruitful for you.
I can’t remember exactly how long ago the first funeral I attended was. I was nine years old, maybe ten, and one of the counselors from my daycare center had committed suicide. He was everything I had wanted to be back then: smart and funny, with an immensely inventive creative mind. I remember the way his Adam’s apple bobbed and his voice cracked when he spoke—he was only sixteen—and the way his hair curled where it was long in the back. His father’s voice broke, too, when he gave the eulogy. I remember being sad and terribly confused.
The most recent funeral I attended was this past March. He was a friend, and the husband of my office’s admin. He was one of the first people to compliment my photography. He had a sudden heart attack, and passed away after spending a few weeks in a coma. It was chilly and gray on the morning we gathered at the Miramar National Cemetary, but though it rained before and almost immediately afterwards, during the actual service it was dry. Even though I was expecting it, the crack of the rifle salute made me jump.
I’ve been to a lot of funerals in my life, which is just to say that, whether friends or family, I’ve lost a lot of people. And I’ve grieved.
That I’m thinking about grief today makes sense, because for the last several hours I’ve been watching what seems like the whole world grieving over Prince’s death. It would have surprised a younger me that I am grieving as well.
I remember exactly where I was when I found out that Kurt Cobain had died. It was April of 1994, and I was on a week-long school camping trip. We were on our way from one campsite in Anza-Borrego to another in Joshua Tree and the bus had stopped at a supermarket in Twentynine Palms so that we could all go to the bathroom and pick up some more supplies. All of the newspapers in the vending machines outside had Cobain’s face on the front page. I remember being unfazed, because that was before—just before—music really started to matter to me. I looked over and saw a girl named Britta bent over with her arms wrapped around her stomach, sobbing uncontrollably. I didn’t say anything, but I remember being surprised and confused. “Why are you so upset?” I thought. “It’s not like you knew him.”
And my fourteen-year-old self would be equally surprised—no, more so—that I spent a good chunk of this morning quietly sniffling at my desk and hoping that my cubemates didn’t notice. I didn’t know Prince. I’d never even been in the same room as him. And though I have enjoyed his music for a long time, it wasn’t the foundational music of my life; I didn’t even really listen to it all that often. Nevertheless, I am grieving his loss.
The way I feel right now is not the same as the way I felt when I watched my mother and her sisters open the urn and empty their father’s ashes into San Francisco Bay. It’s not the same as the way I felt when I found out that a friend had jumped off the Bixby Bridge. But these emotions are no less real for being different.
I’ve seen a lot of “Man, fuck 2016” on the Internet today, as for the past several months. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Phife Dawg, Merle Haggard, and now Prince. And more besides. At each passing I’ve seen an outpouring of love, of sadness, of memories—though perhaps none so much as with Bowie and Prince. What I understand now in ways that I didn’t when I was a high-school freshman is that whether or not you know an artist personally, they may still be a part of your life. If that connection is different from what you have with a close friend or loved one, it is nonetheless still meaningful and profound, and the loss of that presence is truly a loss.
I have seen so many people today talk about how Prince’s music, his style, his life, made them feel accepted, helped them find a sense of self. Back in January people said the same of David Bowie. I can’t honestly say the same thing, but, even so, there was this sense of security, of continuity, to knowing that they were out there, doing their own thing and doing it so perfectly, so singularly. If I didn’t think of them every day, the days that I did think of them did make me think about accepting myself and accepting my work, about letting myself be OK with the idea that I’m different from other people. And now that they are gone, the world does seem a little less bright.
We are all in some way or another looking for connection. And that feeling, that recognition and acceptance can come in a lot of different ways from a lot of different places. I find it in a certain look in my wife’s eyes, in the laughter of my children, in the memory of my grandfather’s slow, deep drawl. I find it, too, in the way Lin-Manuel Miranda’s voice cracks in “Dear Theodosia,” and in the tenderness of Judith Fox’s photographs in I Still Do, and in Jude’s brokenness in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. And today I’m finding it in the unshakeable confidence of Prince’s guitar, a confidence I have never felt but which he makes me think some day I could.
If you’re feeling a little lost today, if you’re feeling sad: it’s OK. It’s OK to feel that way. I feel it too. We can feel it together.
Dept. of Speculation
In the first half-hour of reading this book I found myself reaching for my phone over and over again. I kept wanting to clip out lines for Twitter or Tumblr, or so that I could put them into the inevitable review I’d write. But I realized I’d be copying the whole damn thing. Every single shimmering, truthful line has my heart gripped in its little serifed fist.
Fucking hell, this book. I type into my phone. I mean, fuck.
I’m thirty pages in and already I know: I will never write anything this good. Never.
Back in January I attended a photography workshop, one evening of which involved the students all showing each other their portfolios. Afterwards, I was chatting with one of the other photographers there, and I mentioned how struck I was by his work.
“I always find it so impressive to see someone conjure up an image, to construct something that didn’t exist before, completely from your imagination,” I said.
“But that’s what all art is,” he responded. “Making something out of nothing.”
“Well, I guess,” I said. “But it can also be taking one thing and turning it into something else, right?”
I asked Juliette the other day if she thought I was observant. She cocked her head and thought a moment. “You can be,” she said finally. “Sometimes you can be kind of oblivious, but you notice a lot of things that I don’t. And I think you’re really good at articulating things in a way that other people don’t think of, but that make you say, ‘Oh yeah, that is what I think.’”
This little bit of narcissistic despair, it’s not quite right. That is, I do write things like this. Some of these short paragraphs feel so familiar, intimate. Like a line from a poem that I haven’t quite thought of yet, but was maybe just around the bend. The difference is that everything I write, every picture I make, they come from life. If I have any talent or skill, it’s in awareness and analysis, not imagination. I can notice a detail and pluck it out and show it to you, and on a good day, maybe I can do that in such a way that you’ll see something new. But making something that wasn’t there before, that’s something that has always eluded me. It does not elude Jenny Offill.
How could somebody imagine this? I could write lines like these, but I could never invent them. There is too much detail, too much truth in the detail. How could you know a life, the little bits of a life, the emotions and nonsense and asides. The little in-between moments where we all really live. How could you know something fictional so specifically? I can’t understand it.
I have this theory that you can break down most writers and photographers into two groups, based on how they work: builders and explorers. (Why just writers and photographers? Well, that’s all I know how to do. Maybe it works for painters and sculptors and musicians, too. I don’t know. Or maybe photography and writing have a particular something in common that other art forms don’t. I don’t know that either.)
Builders are the ones who construct new worlds. The studio photographer. The novelist. The compositor. The poet (sometimes). They start with an idea, see it in their heads, and then bring the elements together until the desired result has been realized.
Explorers often don’t set out to make something specific. They go out into the world to see what’s there, whether it’s to a far-off land or just down the hall. The landscape photographer. The street photographer. The essayist. The raconteur. What goes into the work is what was there, perhaps with some embellishment, some creative editing, but it all starts from a lived experience.
And, of course, most people will fall somewhere between. Ideas often come from life, and life often needs some scaffolding before it becomes art. It’s probably not even a spectrum, but rather a volume, a space with axes going off in all directions. (What’s the origin point, I wonder? The basis? Where is that? What does it even mean? Probably nothing; let’s not extend the metaphor further than it can go.)
I’m an explorer. Is Jenny Offill a builder? I don’t know what her process is, but Dept. of Speculation is presented as a novel, as fiction. So, let’s call her a builder. And if we call her that, maybe we’re going to have to call her a genius, too. A motherfucking savant.
Why have I spent so much time talking about my silly little taxonomy? I don’t know. Perhaps it is just that impressive art is all the more impressive to me when it’s something I can’t do.
There are, of course, explorations that have moved me, changed me, found a back room in my mind and stayed there, popping out to say hello to my conscious brain from time to time. Judith Fox’s I Still Do. Bits of Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. It’s not just the builders who have a claim to my admiration.
Dept. of Speculation is the story of a marriage, from the breathless, youthful sweetness of its beginnings through a jagged crisis and beyond. But in some ways it’s hardly even a narrative—certainly it’s not a conventional one. Rather, it reads like an extended prose poem, a series of vignettes and asides and emotions. Offill doesn’t come right out and say what happened, like a novelist “should.” She relates the plot by showing you the way each thing affects her narrator, her responses to the events, the things before and after. Things get slippery; the perspective shifts from “I” to “she,” and tenses slide around from now to then. Bits of famous authors’ poetry and historical factoids pepper the pages, and it’s up to you to infer their relevance.
It’s not straightforward, but neither is it a slog. It never feels like work. It took me perhaps four hours to read through the slim volume, and I never wanted to put it down or take a break. How do you do that? Make a book that’s both obscure and accessible? I don’t know, but apparently Jenny Offill does.
Have I gushed enough? Weighed this “review” down enough with my tangents and navel-gazing? Just go read this book. It’s really something.
Authenticity, Fiction, Truth, Lies, and Jenny Lewis
I’ve been a little obsessed with Jenny Lewis lately.
I should back up a bit. A while ago I was out for one of my morning runs, listening to one of the one of the “workout” stations on Spotify. Most of the songs that came on were fairly terrible, but the rhythms were all propulsive enough to keep me chugging along. Some awful pop nonsense faded out, leaving nothing but the sound of my footfalls and labored breathing for a moment. Then a few chiming guitar notes rang out of the silence, a quick tempo drum beat kicked in, and there was Jenny Lewis singing about how she’s bad news.
I don’t know if it’s a great song. But there’s something about the way she sings it that makes me believe. “C’mere!” she shouts to her lover, her voice forceful but wild, maybe desperate. The guitar growls in answer and the drums stutter in syncopation like someone tripping over their own feet. I’m drawn in, and I can’t help but wonder: did you do this? Did this happen?
A few months after that morning run, a Facebook friend recommended her solo album, The Voyager. “I can’t stop listening to it,” my friend said. I promptly added the album to my “To Investigate” playlist and forgot about it until last month, and now I can’t stop listening to it either. Throughout the ten songs, Lewis seems to be struggling with regret and disillusionment, the pain of seeing what your life is as you head into middle age, and how it’s different from what you might have thought.
There’s only one difference between you and me
When I look at myself, all I can see:
I’m just another lady without a baby.
I used to think you could save me,
I’ve been wandering lately
Heard she’s having your baby,
And everything’s so amazing
How could I resist her,
I had longed for a big sister
And I wanted to kiss her,
But I hadn’t done that
And, again, I want to know: When you wrote this, were you remembering or imagining? Are you singing in your voice, or someone else’s?
But why? Why do I care? Do the emotions mean more if they are drawn from her own life? And, if so, how does that work?
Almost all of my own work—and certainly the work that has resonated the most with viewers—is about myself. I try to reach for something other people can relate to, but I do this by showing things that are particular to me. And, thinking over my favorite work from other photographers, much of it is drawn from highly personal experiences. Judith Fox’s I Still Do. Andi Schreiber’s Pretty, Please. Duane Michals’s The House I Once Called Home. Rebecca Norris Webb’s My Dakota.
And yet, as much as I seem to value “honesty” and “authenticity” in music and photography, the same isn’t true for, say, books or movies. Of course there are autobiographical examples of each that I love, but I don’t love them more than my favorite works of fiction. Michael Ende never literally visited Fantastica, and yet that doesn’t diminish my feeling of wonder when I read The Neverending Story. Rick Blaine never had a club in Morocco, but the end of Casablanca still puts a lump in my throat. In fact, one of the things I have always said I most admire about novelists is their ability to bring things into being that never existed before, through the sheer force of their imaginations. If they can get me to feel something, that’s real, whether or not the events of their stories actually happened.
Why doesn’t this hold for songs or pictures, then? Mind you, there are fictions in lyrics and images that I enjoy, but the ones that stick with me the most, that I keep coming back to over and over, all of them come from life. Photographs need not be straight or documentary, and lyrics need not be literal, but the driving impulses behind my favorites of each are nearly always emotions and experiences that the artist really lived.
Is it a question of immediacy? A movie is populated with people you know are actors, and words on a page need you to interpret them, to picture them in your head. But when a singer says “I,” it’s hard to hear a persona in that, at least the first few times you hear it. And when you look at a photograph, it’s hard to get past the notion that what’s in the image was really in front of the camera, that the photographer was really there in the room. In either case, there’s room for fiction and lies, and interesting work can and has been made that plays on the audience’s ingenuousness, their expectation of honesty. But then the experience becomes intellectual instead of visceral. There’s value in that, too, but it’s never what I return to more than once or twice.
So then, where does that leave me with Jenny Lewis and her songs? I don’t know if she made them up or not. If I were to find out one way or another, would I care about them more or less? I’m not sure. Authenticity and honesty in art certainly don’t require literal truth. I’m reminded of a bit of advice that photographer James Luckett gave his students about writing an artist statement:
You have no duty to the facts. Your loyalty is to the honesty of your ideas, emotions, dreams, desires and needs; what Werner Herzog calls the ecstatic truth. That is your goal.
If what you’ve felt is real and you’ve put that into your work, then the work is honest, whether or not it depicts actual events. I like that idea, and I certainly can’t argue against it as advice for an artist. As part of the audience, though, I still haven’t made up my mind. But I suppose if the beat is propulsive enough, I’ll keep running.
Thoughts On (My) Photography
"A photograph should be more interesting than the subject and transcend its obviousness."
That's a quotation from photographer Jeffrey Ladd which has been making the rounds in photoland, due in part to the fact that Jörg Colberg highlighted it in a blog post a few weeks ago. It's also something that a reviewer repeated to me (somewhat exasperatedly) during my session with him at the Medium Festival of Photography this past weekend.
I met with twelve people during the portfolio reviews, ranging from museum curators to creative agents to bloggers to gallery owners. I also got the chance to show my photographs to a few dozen others via the open portfolio walk and the Open Show presentations (the latter of which my friend Jonas was kind enough to invite me to take part in). The responses I got ranged from tepid to breathless. Some people found my pictures cute; others found them poignant. One reviewer complimented me on the quietness of the images; another said I needed to give him a reason to care. Several told me that I needed to make the work more universal, while others talked about how relatable the emotions and experiences were that I was trying to convey. One told me that I should study more; another said that I don't need to keep aspiring to the level of the photographers I admire, because I'm already there.
I admit, that last one was (and is) a bit difficult for me to swallow. I don't think of myself as a "real" artist, nor do I think of my work as anything special. Getting back to the quotation I led with, it's always been difficult for me to judge whether or not the pictures I make (or the things I write, or anything I do or think) are obvious, because everything I do is obvious to me. In general, I'm always surprised when anyone wants to talk to me or cares what I say or do. I almost never feel like I belong, or that I or the things I do will be important to anyone besides me.
(I can feel my in-laws rushing to say something nice about me here. I appreciate the sentiment, but I just want to make it clear that I'm not fishing for compliments. How I feel about myself and my work is almost entirely a product of my own insecurities, and is not at all rational. As proof: I crave validation, but receiving it makes me profoundly uncomfortable.)
During the second half of the festival I got to see some amazing lectures from a diverse group of photographers, all of them working in profoundly different ways toward different goals and exploring different themes and subjects. Chris Engman and Soo Kim are doing utterly brilliant work exploring the very nature of photography. Matt Black, Virginia Beahan, and Jess T. Dugan are engaging with important social and political issues in deeply humanist ways. And on the one hand I was genuinely excited to see their work, both as an audience member and in taking away new perspectives as an aspiring artist. But, me being me, it's hard not to look at what they do and be overwhelmed; by comparison, my own photographs and the themes I'm dealing with feel small and obvious and trifling. These are people who are dealing with complex questions about art and the medium of photography, or exploring critical real-world issues like gender, sexuality, the representation of marginalized communities, environmental sustainability, water use, poverty, economic inequality, and international migration. The only things I'm looking at are my relatively comfortable life and the inside of my own mind.
Not everyone who saw my photographs connected with what they saw, but some did, and did so very strongly. I tend to concentrate more on my failures than my successes, and so the fact that some people find my pictures boring or perhaps even self-indulgent makes me question what I'm doing. But the truth is that I'm aiming at a very specific set of emotions and experiences with my photographs, and even if those emotions and experiences might be recognizable, they're not ones that are going to matter to everybody. And that's OK, because I'm not really talking to those people. Moreover, I don't have to be talking to them. I always recognize the legitimacy of specificity in other people's work; I should be willing to do the same with mine.
When people ask me about my motivations in creating my work—as many people did over the course of the four-day festival—I always say that the artists who have most moved me are the ones in whose work I have seen something of myself. Something that I can relate to, that lets me know that someone else is going through the same things I'm going through, and thinking about the same things that I'm thinking about. That those artists, through their work, make me feel a connection to something bigger than myself, and help me feel a little less alone, a little less afraid. I say that this is what I want to do with my own photographs and writing. I think it's time to really live up to that statement, to own it. And that means accepting that I have a right to my own voice, and to believe in what I'm saying.
I still have a lot to learn—I always will—and it will always be important to me to maintain a sense of humility. I don't think I will ever stop being nervous or self-conscious about my work. But I'm coming around to the idea that this stuff of mine has its place in the world, and I'm cautiously optimistic about the future.
The other day I had an utterly fascinating—to me, anyway—conversation with one of my co-workers. A group of us were talking about our childhood music lessons, and how basically all of us quit relatively quickly. I mentioned how I really wish I'd stuck with it, and that if I had more time I'd love to take piano lessons. I found it interesting that I was the only one who had those regrets to any degree, but I was particularly struck by one guy's attitude. "Who cares?" he said. "I mean, whatever—music, art, who really gives a shit? All that stuff just seems like a way to kill time." Later in the same conversation he said he'd like to learn a new language but it turned out that it was mainly due to how that could expand his career possibilities. Indeed, everything that he expressed interest in had to do with new ways to make money or otherwise materially improve his lifestyle, and being presented with a viewpoint so totally different from mine was, if nothing else, something that made me pause. Intellectually, I've known that there are people out there who think like this guy, but most of the people I know personally are like me in that they take it for granted that at least some aspects of culture and the arts have value—it's a little jarring to see the opposite opinion up close.
Now, at this point it would be easy for me to go on a tirade about how awful it is that people think art is a waste of time, or how our societal values or educational system are out of whack, or bemoan the direction in which we're headed as a civilization. But I think that it would be a mistake to draw too large a conclusion from one oddball co-worker, aside from which, I'm sure that people like this have always existed.
And, you know, I can't even really fault this guy too much for valuing things he can get paid for. After all, he enjoys what he does for a living, and thinks that it's important. I believe in hard work and being part of a team, and so I give my best effort to be good at what I do and to get the job done, but when you come right down to it, the only thing I get out of my career is money. So, really, who's the more mercenary between the two of us?
No, the thing that I keep coming back to as I think about this conversation is that I can't really disagree fundamentally that it's all just a way to kill time.
Don't get me wrong, I love art. I love creating it and I love being part of the audience. There aren't many things I value more highly or would rather spend my life doing. But when you come down to it, isn't everything we do just a way of passing the time, distracting ourselves from the fact that we're going to die some day? Perhaps we like to think we are creating a legacy, or doing some great work, but consider Shelley's Ozymandias: "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" the king proclaimed, intending his statue to last forever. And yet, "Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away."
We talk about art in terms of expression and communication, of evoked emotions and shared experience. But what is any of that if not a way of making the time we have here a little more bearable? And, in the end, isn't that really the value of things like art and culture and entertainment? We have only a short time in the world, and for so many of us that time is full of injustice and hardship, loneliness, sadness, toil, or, if nothing else, at least inanity. If by making something and putting it out there for people to see, we can help someone feel a little less alone, make their time seem a little more fulfilling or even just fun, it's hard to for me to see what else could be a better use of your time.
Art, the Art World, and On Taking Pictures
I listen to a lot of podcasts, and one of my favorites is On Taking Pictures. For those of you who don't follow it, On Taking Pictures is a weekly podcast in which hosts Bill Wadman and Jeffery Saddoris—to use their own words—discuss the art, the science, and sometimes the philosophy of making images. They cover photo-related news, there's the occasional bit of gear talk, but what I really love about this podcast is the conversational tone. Listening to these guys talk about photography reminds me of the conversations I used to have back in college with Juliette's theater friends, an experience I miss.
One of the recent episodes included an exchange that got me to thinking a lot about my own struggles with making art, which I've excerpted below. To give a little background, Bill had recently been to an exhibition of photographs by Zoe Leonard, at which he found himself frustrated by what he perceived to be a lack of quality or substance to the photographs, as well as by what he considered to be a very pretentious artist's statement. (A somewhat frequent refrain on the show is Bill's dislike of what he terms "art-school pretense.")
BW: To your average person, this is crap! But to somebody this isn't crap, and I'm sure her pictures are very well regarded, I'm sure Zoe Leonard makes a good amount of money taking the pictures she takes. And more power to you. I don't get it. Now, somebody could say, well you know what? Maybe your work is far too pedestrian and too derivative and too boring and too commercial in a "lower C" sense.
JS: But you're also not waxing poetic about the significance of that.
BW: Exactly. I'm not writing labels that are 250 words long about how my photographs are objects of objects and the objectification…
JS: Yeah. "I'm creating a new movement, pedantic objectivism."
BW: Exactly. You just spent everyone's artistic pretense.
The conversation spoke to some of the frustrations I've had with the art world, both as a member of the audience and as someone who's trying to do something with my own work, and I couldn't help but want to respond. So I ended up writing a somewhat embarrassingly lengthy and rambling email to Bill and Jeffery, which they were very gracious about. But once I had gotten the whole thing written out, I realized that I wanted to broaden the conversation and include the people in my own life. So, with Bill and Jefferey's blessing, I've taken what I wrote to them and adapted it for this blog. I hope you'll bear with me while I meander.
Now, I think it's useful here to distinguish between "art" and "the art world," the latter being a community of gallerists, curators, and critics, and to some extent the artists who are supported by that community—largely the kind of MFA-holding elites that get Bill so hot under the collar. From both my own observations and from what I've read, contemporary art is kind of all over the place, encompassing a huge range of styles and themes and techniques, but the art world has more or less decided on a particular sort of conceptual and intellectual approach to creating and understanding art that it will embrace, and it rejects everything else.
The art world tends to reject beauty and sentimentality—in fact, art that engages directly with most emotions seems to be something that the art world has difficulty with. Art that deals with or springs from sociopolitical concepts tends to do well, especially if it's shocking or ugly. Especially in photography, work that is exalted tends to be project-based and conceptually driven, rather than "grown" in a more organic way.
All of this has been tough for me, since the focus of my own photography is finding and engaging with the narratives of my own family life and the places I live and have lived. I know what it is that I'm trying to do with my work and although I know I haven't gotten to where I want to go just yet, I think I'm good at what I do, photographically speaking. The stuff I show at portfolio reviews and local crit groups tends to get good reactions, but when it comes to submissions I deal with a lot of rejection. I've had gallerists tell me that my stuff is good but that they probably couldn't sell it. I've had art competitions and photo magazines reject my work with comments that the pictures are well done but aren't really "fine art."
So on the one hand, I often find myself shaking my head at what does get embraced by the art world. I often find myself being able to appreciate contemporary art on an intellectual level—saying to myself, "OK, I see what you were trying to do here"—but a lot of it utterly fails to move me. I think I feel some of the same frustrations that Bill does, in that way.
But when I step back and think about it, I can't really see why intellectualism is necessarily an invalid way of approaching art. It frustrates me that there doesn't seem to be room for other kinds of work in the art world, but, really, what's wrong with this kind of conceptually driven art?
Back in April, a writer acquaintance of mine—Daniel Abraham—posted the following quotation to his blog with the instructions to discuss it: "Inaccessibility in a work of art is either a failure of craft or a statement of contempt." The comment thread produced some interesting conversation, I thought. My response was that that presented a false dichotomy—while inaccessibility could be a mark of failure or contempt, it could also be due to the fact that not everyone is equipped to hear what you are trying to say. From the standpoint of literature, the point of a book is the experience one gets from reading it, and some experiences that are worth having cannot be had if the book is easy to understand. The act of working to understand the book is in itself an integral part of the experience. That doesn't mean that this is the only valuable kind of experience you can or should get from a book, but there's room for lots of different kinds of books and lots of different kinds of experiences, and accessibility is not a virtue unto itself, only a means to an end.
And, of course, the reverse is also true: difficulty and opacity are also not virtues unto themselves, and just because a book is an easy read doesn't mean that it can't be a profoundly valuable experience. And it's also certainly true that some work is simply pretentious or contemptuous and has no substance, and can't provide a worthwhile experience no matter how hard you work at it.
What this says to me is that art need not be universal. That some experiences—valid, even important experiences—are simply not going to be accessible to every potential audience member. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Or rather, if it's bad, it's bad in a way that's tragic for the artist rather than condemnatory of him. But just because some people—or even most people—won't get it, doesn't mean that a work of art is bad or shouldn't have been made, or that the approach used in creating it is invalid, or that the people who do get it are wrong for celebrating it.
Bringing this back to contemporary photography, I think that the problem with the art world is not that "art-school pretense" is a bad thing, or that 250-word artist statements are ruining art. I think it must be the case that some contemporary art is a load of bullshit, but I think it must also be the case that some of it is merely designed to elicit reactions that I either miss or that I don't value, and that has to be OK. The problem isn't with conceptual roots or an intellect-only approach or "pedantic objectivism," or any of those things in and of themselves, but rather the problem is that so many other valid approaches to art are shunned.
What I haven't really settled on for myself is whether the kind of egalitarian, inclusive approach to understanding art that I seem to be in favor of has any limits, and, if so, what those limits are. Am I really saying that anything goes when it comes to art? I don't know, maybe. I don't like the idea of art that's mean or intentionally condescending. I have a lot of trouble with "appropriation art." And I haven't really settled for myself whether art has to be about something, whether it has to be trying to say something. I don't really like the idea of saying that it does, but whenever I run into an artist who claims he's not trying to say anything—I find this happens most often with painters, for some reason—my first reaction is always to wonder why he's bothering to make anything, then.
And, of course, almost all of the art that has really spoken to me, especially recently, has all been about something. Judith Fox's book about her husband's Alzheimer's—which is about Alzheimer's, of course, but is really about aging and loss and enduring love. Elizabeth Fleming, whose take on parenthood has been a big inspiration for me, and whose recent work about family and place and loss I really enjoyed. Deborah Parkin, who makes pictures about memory and childhood and depression. Even Alec Soth, who I've always seen as making work about manhood and loneliness and, in some ways, immaturity.
As always, I'm interested to know what other people think about all of this. Does art have to be about something? I was particularly interested in Bill and Jefferey's thoughts because they both enjoy portraiture a lot—Bill is, in fact, a professional portrait and editorial photographer—and that's a genre I've always had trouble connecting with. I tend to feel about portraiture the same way I feel about ballet—I appreciate the technique, but it rarely moves me. When it does really work for me it tends to be portraiture that's more project-based and conceptual, in which case what it's "about" is more obvious.
The OTP guys were kind enough to respond on the show, so if you're interested you can have a listen. There aren't clean answers to these questions, but in spite of that—or perhaps because of it—it's important, I think, to ask them and think about them. If you have any thoughts on any of it, I'd love to hear them.